Then she meets Chloe, learns more about her heritage as one of The People (capital P.)
All of a sudden ultimate popularity pales in comparison to saving the world from the forces of evil, a shiny new sword and some rather good cheesecake.
Want a sneak peak? Read Chapter 1 below:
I hadn’t expected it to be exciting. Anything that could be achieved by distributing a piece of paper should not be done by physical demonstration. Still, the campus tour gave me time to plan. I spotted her nearly straightaway. She was slightly taller than me with long dark hair pulled up on top of her head. She wore low-slung black pants with flat sandals and crimson toenails. A thin leather cord wrapped around her neck, and six or more silver bangles tinkled at her wrist.
This one looks perfect.
I took advantage of the break in the enthralling presentation to make my move. I sidled over as we all shuffled behind the guide like a bunch of bewildered wildebeest.
“Hi, I’m Jen,” I whispered.
I saw a slight puckering around her eyes as confusion registered on her face.
“I’m Chloe,” she whispered back without turning her head to look at me. Then she smiled.
Okay, so at least she’s interested; now I have to see if my plan will work.
“We have a problem,” I whispered.
She nodded to show she’d heard me. I took it as a good sign. “Somehow we have to navigate the transition from knowing no one to having friends without actually being seen to make friends, because we both know it would be very uncool to admit that it’s awkward when you don’t know anyone.”
Her eyes were dancing but she kept her tone serious. “How will we overcome this problem?” she asked.
“We will pretend to be friends, either until we actually become friends or until we meet other people and drift painlessly apart. Nothing attracts people to you in these situations as much as already having friends.”
She was still listening. She hadn’t run away screaming from my overly assertive introduction. In fact she seemed to be struggling to suppress a smile.
“Should we shake on it?”
“No, just follow my lead.” I slipped back into the crowd.
As soon as the tour was officially pronounced over, I steadied my nerves. This was about to put all my theories about popularity to the test. I spotted Chloe looking around through the throng of bodies. I headed straight over, waving and smiling. “Chloe! There you are! Hi!” I wedged as much cheery enthusiasm into my tone as possible.
Her eyes twinkled as she broke into a slightly forced but believable smile. “Hey, Jen!”
In the spirit of my granddad, who always said “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I threw my arms around her and hugged her. “Have you seen what’s happening down on the lawn? There’s a whole barbecue and a giant moonwalk slide thing!”
She matched my faked excitement. “Sounds great!”
It was all I could do to wait to laugh out loud until we were heading down the drive toward the barbecue. “Okay, if we’re never friends again after today, I still owe you one. That was fun. Of course that was only stage one of the plan. Now we have to get to know each other quickly so that we can start manufacturing a social group.”
“Do you always approach popularity like a military operation?” Little did she know.
I shrugged. “Anyone can be popular as long as they have friends they don’t like.”
Chloe stopped walking. “Do you mean that?”
I think I shocked her. But I’d learned it the hard way. “It’s true,” I said. “You can’t be popular if you plan to stick only to people you like and want to spend time with. Thankfully, popularity is not actually my goal over here.” At least not lasting popularity.
“It’s not?” Her dark eyes got even wider.
“No. Not at all. I was popular in my first high school, and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But it did let me study the science of popularity. If people think of you as desirable to know, then you have the luxury of picking out exactly which people you want to have as friends.”
When my parents tried to save their marriage by repeatedly moving states, they bounced me from the top of the social pile to the bottom and then back up again. The gut-wrenching tension in our house didn’t improve, but I gained a whole new social understanding. I realized that popularity had nothing to do with the individual’s likeability and everything to do with the movement of social tides. Therefore, popularity could be created. Coming to college, I decided to put the theory to the test and see if I could make myself temporarily the most popular girl on campus. Because then I’d know once and for all whether my changes in social fortune had any bearing on my identity.
“First high school?” she asked after a minute.
We started walking again toward the scent of burning animal flesh. “I was in three.”
“That must have been hard.”
Hard would be an understatement, but I wasn’t about to start telling the truth to a stranger. “Yes and no. My mom is excellent, and since I only had three real friends in each place, I stayed in touch with most of them.”
“Are you planning on sticking out the whole four years here?”
“I hope so. I thought about renting an apartment instead of moving into res, just so I wouldn’t have to pack my stuff up again for four years.”
“I’m not in res,” Chloe said casually, like it wasn’t awesome.
“No? Cool. I thought they have enough space for everybody these days.”
“They do, I think. I came early and did summer school. I needed somewhere to live, and, to be honest, the whole communal shower thing was one experience I could live without.”
I nodded my agreement. “I’m with you, sister. Thank goodness that I’m in the new res. We’ve got en suites. Where’s your apartment? Are you living by yourself?”
She pointed up the hill to the left of campus. “Just up the hill. We’re the top of one of those triples things.”
It suddenly dawned on me that I’d taken my eye off the ball. We were about to enter the next stage, and I hadn’t completed the groundwork. “Quick, before we hit stage two. Where are you from? What do you plan to major in? We’ve already done which res. Why did you pick this fine academic institution?”
“El Paso, Texas. Chemical engineering. There was no essay,” she responded immediately.
I really like this chick.
Hang on a second. “There was no essay?” I gave that the raised eyebrow that it deserved.
She laughed. “For real. I applied to a bunch of other schools I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to, and then I saw that the application for here didn’t require an essay, so I applied late.”
“Then came early.”
She shrugged. I knew first-class avoidance when I saw it. I was the last person to expect anyone else to spill their guts.
“Don’t worry. If we’re going to be friends, then there’s time for you to tell me the story, and if not, then you can keep your secrets.”
Chloe seemed relieved. “Thanks. What about you?”
“Philadelphia, at least most recently. Whatever will get me into med school; I was thinking of political science because I hear med schools really like to take arts majors. Here is cheap, and my parents argue over money often enough.” I can’t believe I said that last part out loud.
“Sorry.” I saw her wince.
I tried to do damage control. “Mainly their lawyers argue over it, so it could be worse.”
“How long have they been divorced?”
I didn’t want to talk about it, but I was the idiot who’d brought it up in the first place. “They’re not yet. That’s the problem.”
The Lord had mercy on me, because we finally reached the line for free barbecue food and could switch from discussing my least favorite subjects to stage two. Within seconds, a petite chick with a mop of dark curls came up behind us. She was sporting a hippy but trendy sundress, so she might have actually been my type, but now was not the time to worry about making any real friends. Before I could stop to put too much thought into the operation, I turned and introduced us. “Hi, I’m Jen. This is Chloe; she’s from El Paso, Texas.”
It worked exactly as I’d predicted. The girl looked relieved someone was speaking to her. “Hi, I’m Tess. I’m from Ottawa.”
We’d just covered Tess’s possible major, psychology, when behind her came a couple of girls making awkward conversation. I immediately introduced myself to the tall black girl in cutoff sweatpants and then introduced Chloe and Tess to her blond, ponytailed companion. By the time we’d covered all the basics again, we’d reached the front of the line. I was relieved to find there was a vegetarian option. I was prepared to abandon three years of vegetarianism for the mission, but it would have been a heavy price to pay.
Once we all had some food in our hands, I led the way to a patch of lawn that was close to the main thoroughfare but had good room for expansion. As we walked over, I spotted a girl with red hair tucked behind her ears, looking rather green behind her multitude of freckles.
“Hi, I’m Jen. Would you like to join us?” I didn’t ask her family name. I have an excellent memory, but I didn’t intend to have a personal connection with any of these people. Family names meant I actually planned to retain them after the experiment was done.
On the other side of the barbecue, in the vegetarian line, I spotted a guy in a retro, green-plaid shirt and long shorts. His corn-blond hair was gelled into spikes. I thought I could make out green eyes behind the black-rimmed glasses. Soy hot dog in one hand, he scanned the lawn.
My eyes caught his. Half a smile flickered on his lips. He cocked his head to one side as if asking a question. I hoped I had the answer.
A sharp elbow in my side broke the moment. “Jen, what about that one?” Chloe hissed pointing to a girl in distressed jeans and a tank top that rode up to reveal her pierced naval.
I nodded; the mission needed me. I jumped to my feet and headed over to the girl. “Hi, I’m Jen from Philadelphia. Would you like to join us?”
The girl smiled broadly. “Sure, I’d love to join you. I hate this part when no one knows each other.”
I introduced her to the group, and then I looked around. The guy with the spiky hair and glasses was gone.